Repost, with light edits: A Reasonable Natural Rights

I have often described my philosophical foundations as lying within the natural rights tradition, and just as often this confuses people. Perhaps I should stop trying. But anyway, below is a partially recycled post about natural rights from the old site. It seems an important groundwork for a lot of what I think more generally, which is why I’m reposting it.

My claim is simply that there values human beings should have, or ought to have, in light of what they actually are. That is, within a fairly wide tolerance for individual variation, there are things we should and should not want, and we get these shoulds and shouldn’ts from something peculiar about human nature, which is different from the natures of other entities. I am, in other words, a pretty modest, chastened, secular, post-Randian Aristotelian. More even than Ayn Rand, Daniel Dennett and Henry Veatch have expressed what I’m getting at here. Read them, I’d say. We are built for certain things, and the one thing within us at which all the lesser things aim is the use and extension of reason in all our activities. The examined life is the one good trick that we have, and rights are the means by which we obtain it, given the necessity — and the advantages — of living in close quarters with other people.

Further, I find that most claims against natural rights tend strongly to be self-refuting. That is, they represent themselves as claims of reason, delivered by human beings, to be evaluated rationally by someone at least implicitly assumed to be fully the equal of the speaker — else why pose the argument? — whereupon the recipient of the argument surrenders the one thing that made him accept said argument in the first place, namely his rational faculty and the freedom to use it. This would be nonsensical behavior.

Other arguments against natural rights are not so self-refuting. It is often objected that natural rights don’t have any natural enforcement mechanism. Absent such a mechanism, can they even be said to exist? Can there be natural rights at all without a God to settle the scores?

Advocates of natural rights theory aren’t claiming that the rules they speak of are laws in the sense of the law of gravity or of magnetism. Nor need they claim that in the Last Judgment, God will set everything aright again. We are speaking of logical inferences based on human attributes and conduct, inferences that create restraints on how we may properly act. One may act against these restraints, but never without having done something evil.

It may well be that some violations of natural rights go unpunished forever. This doesn’t make them any less wrong. Consider a promise to a friend: If you break such a promise, is it any defense on your part that the promise lacked a natural enforcement mechanism? Natural rights are like that — they are promises implicit in the enjoyment of a peaceable, orderly, examined life in human society.

Moral claims can be real, and even natural, without nature providing an enforcement mechanism. Lack of this mechanism doesn’t mean that the claim is not based on fundamental considerations of man’s nature. Indeed, this is self-evident, because if nature did cause moral laws to be enforced automatically, these laws would not be up for debate, not more at any rate than magnetism or gravity is. “Obey gravity,” says the old T-shirt. “It’s the law.” We only need to discuss, to teach, or to think about rules that may be chosen. And among the set of possible choices, some may fit better than others with the nature of the beast called man.

Now, to be sure, some gravity-type natural laws are particular to humans — the need to consume vitamin C, or the need for oxygen, without which we will die. But these are not natural rights, because they are not in themselves moral claims. (Still, “no person should be willfully deprived of oxygen” and “no person should be willfully deprived of vitamin C” are the kind of moral claim I’m talking about. Rights are claims about proper human behavior, not about the mere physical preconditions for human life.)

Humans happen to be primates, and happen to need certain basic physical necessities. But we are also the rational, planmaking animals. It’s the latter consideration that is the foundation of any non-mystical natural rights theory. If a similar species existed, with planmaking and the ability to be rational, but with a reptilian ancestry, that species would in its essentials be… human.

We humans survive and flourish — or we suffer and die — based on the quality of the complex, adaptable, long-range plans that we make. In this, we are distinctly, objectively different from other animals, who only make at best very short-range plans, or who rely purely on instinct and habituation. Natural rights, as I would define them, are those moral obligations that we have toward others in consideration of our planmaking natures, and in our attempts to maximally coordinate the plans of all such creatures.

For example, we have property so that we may do things with it, and we may count on reaping the benefits (or costs) of our plans. Although there is no chemical or physical attribute of objects or land that marks it as “property” in the material sense, we can still say that the way that humans use objects and land creates some implied moral claims to them, and these moral claims exist whether or not they are enforced, whether or not there is a government, and even whether or not we are aware of them.

Note that the existence of planmaking among chimpanzees, other highly intelligent animals, or borderline cases along the evolutionary tree does not negate the existence of natural rights among humans. Instead it offers evidence, whose convincingness we may debate, that these entities’ plans and planmaking, insofar as we could apprehend them, should be integrated into the web of rights and obligations offered to all sentient creatures. Humans are rational, planmaking animals, and one great virtue of this definition is that it doesn’t point at any necessary species or body conformation.

(Hypothetical for a moment: Suppose we discovered an alien race that was rational and planmaking, but that did not experience happiness as we report it. Many utilitarians — Austrian-School utilitarians excepted, perhaps, depending on the Vulcans’ self-reports about “unease” — many utilitarians could be flummoxed by the mere existence of the Vulcans. A natural-rights theorist, however, would notice the Vulcans’ rationality, and their ability to think about the future, and that they act on their environment accordingly, and there would be no question about how to treat them.)

I am far from persuaded that the more intelligent animals have reached anything like the level we have, even if their genes are often very much like ours. Indeed, there’s an even stronger borderline case that we deal with all the time — the rights of children, whose genes are precisely like ours. Nonetheless we have good reason to treat them differently, and we would never argue that infants should have the exact same rights and obligations as adults, by virtue of their shared genes. Natural rights are based on expectations about human behaviors, not on human genetics.

Where children and other less than competent actors fit in a theory of natural rights is the subject, as we say, of another post. The point here is that rights are about goals and intentions, and not about molecules or genes. To the degree that one can be presumed to form rational goals and intentions, one should be allowed to do so, and to execute those plans, as long as it does not interfere with a like allowance for everyone else. (We should also err on the side of more rights, rather than fewer, for adult human beings, though too often we don’t. Again, the subject of another post.) Children, who can’t be presumed to form fully rational goals and intentions, have guardians assigned to act on their behalf. (Perhaps animals should too?)

One indication that even very intelligent animals aren’t ready for rights is that they are unable to grasp the concepts that would make rights a set of reciprocal and universally morally binding obligations. Even a young human child can understand the difference between “mine” and “thine,” although that child’s understanding will obviously not be as sophisticated as an adult’s. Animals have little sense of this. Give rights to wolves and rabbits, and nothing will change. The wolves will eat the rabbits, and the rabbits will never think to press charges.

One further objection to natural rights theory is that it is far too much theory and far too little natural — that is, it’s a lot of things that human beings have thought up. How can that be anything natural?

Yet clearly, there were some “non-material things” at work even in the conception of said argument. Were the objectors’ thoughts “wholly imaginary” too? If so, why should I listen to them? And if I should listen to them, why then, I should also listen to the natural rights theorists. And what if I find their arguments more persuasive?

I mean, before they were electrons on the screen, these words were shadows and figments of your reason, and, by virtue of this, I am as on a solid footing in dismissing your argument as you are in dismissing the idea of natural rights. If we dismiss the whole class of “non-material things that we’ve thought up,” we’ll be throwing out everything that’s good, or even interesting, about human life. The above is as strong an argument against language as it is an argument against natural rights.

If a thing is “non-material,” yet it has real effects, must we not conclude that it is, at least in this very important sense, real? Indeed, we may even say that the purely imaginary is real — qua imagined thing.

Imagined things may have good or bad real effects, of course. And I observe, as a natural-rights libertarian, that the imagined thing of natural rights, like the imagined thing of language, typically has good effects on humans. Why? I’d say it’s because this particular thing corresponds to a high degree with human nature, which requires a set of special conditions under which to make and execute plans. To the degree that our imagined-thing-of-natural-rights corresponds with the actual thing of human nature, it will take into account the requirements for human flourishing, and acting according to this imagined thing will have generally good effects on both man and society.

In short, the nature of mankind is real. The moral obligations of natural rights are inferred, using the mind, based on what we can discover of this nature. And, although these discoveries are “merely” mental structures, the structures that correspond with who we are have on the whole some very good real effects. Thus, they are both real and good.

And now for some objections and/or side considerations….

1. Yes, I am aware that my own understanding of natural rights is different from other natural rights theorists’ and may produce different results. I’ve been unable to think in anything but these terms, however, and these other approaches have always seemed not quite right to me.

2. I am unpersuaded by the modern separation of “is” from “ought.” I’m an Aristotelian, and I believe that the good life is one of wisely considered action. We do best when we order the rest of our less-than-rational affairs in accordance with this, the great goal, the final cause — the telos of our humanity. Again, the subject of another post, even though the telos itself is ontologically primary and I probably should have begun with it.

3. I am in large part a compatibilist with regard to many forms of rule utilitarianism. I find that rule utilitarianism often but not always produces outcomes consonant with my own understanding of natural rights. I’ll have more to say about why I think utilitarianism is nonetheless incoherent in a few weeks, when a piece of writing that I’m working on professionally is finally published. This piece is not a direct attack on utilitarianism — that’s not the sort of thing Cato publishes — but it does raise a lot of questions for utilitarians, and I think these questions are generally unanswerable.

4. Because natural rights argumentation is based on (a) empirical observation and (b) inference from this form of observation, it’s inevitably subject to the full range of human errors. Natural rights theory is a framework for arguing, and not always and everywhere a rigorous set of conclusions. It’s a theory, remember.

It’s possible that observation and reconsideration may cause changes in what we understand human nature to be, and I’m actually quite comfortable with that. Call it liberal natural rights theory, perhaps. Many natural rights theorists failed to appreciate this aspect of their subject, which I find unfortunate.

5. One objection to my teleological account of rights — which is really too hasty to be called properly philosophical anyway — is that if we are planmaking creatures, then the telos toward which we point is not the making of plans, but the success of our plans. The welfare state turns out to be justified, because it makes even poor life plans work out okay. Which is wonderful, right?

This is an error. Considered, rational living is the substance of the good life, whether the individual’s plans succeed or fail. We may say properly that a person was good even if his plans failed, provided that they were, given his sphere of knowledge and resources, well-considered plans, and provided also that he bears himself nobly in failure. We should not conclude that all plans deserve to succeed, or that we have a duty to make them succeed, as this would lead to an endorsement of arbitrarily poor plans, clearly not a rational outcome.

6. There would seem to be negative moral obligations in this account, but what about positive moral obligations? And unchosen ones? Are there any? I’d say — qualifiedly — yes, but only in particular situations, and that positive state-enforceable rights are rarer still. The subject, as we say, of another post.

7. It’s possible, and I think very likely, that the “unreal” mental structures of the imagination are simply very very small, and not unreal in any proper sense. In which case the argument needs no modifications.

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4 Responses to Repost, with light edits: A Reasonable Natural Rights

  1. 2. I am unpersuaded by the modern separation of “is” from “ought.” I’m an Aristotelian, and I believe that the good life is one of wisely considered action. We do best when we order the rest of our less-than-rational affairs in accordance with this, the great goal, the final cause — the telos of our humanity. Again, the subject of another post, even though the telos itself is ontologically primary and I probably should have begun with it.

    Perhaps I’m misreading you hear, but don’t all things, or at least all living things, have a telos of sorts. A seed, for example, has a “telos” of becoming a plant; a dog has a “telos” of running around yapping all the time (or whatever); a squirrel has a “telos” of running up trees and storing nuts. Is it possible to extend your argument to say that these entities have natural rights, too, insofar as it would be wrong to prevent them from realizing their telos?

    I suspect your answer is no, and it probably relies in some degree on what you mentioned about reciprocity. I still don’t understand why it is important that something must be able to reciprocate in order for it to have rights. I will probably have to reread your post and think on it for a while.

  2. Jason's husband, Scott says:

    I have always felt that animals and plants DO have natural rights of exactly the sort you posit. They are just weaker than the natural rights of humans. I don’t step on bugs just for the fun of it (even though I did think it was fun when I was very young–I’ve always hated ants). But if a bug comes in my house, then I judge what to do with it entirely on the basis of living my life successfully. So, since ants degrade my house and steal my food, they are killed mercilessly. With relish. I love maple trees, but if they germinate in my garden, they’re gone.

    Why do I think this way? I think it’s basically just being conservative. I should cultivate the habit of not interfering with anything’s natural course, and only interfere after deliberation. And why cultivate this habit? A sufficient, quasi-Kantian answer is because it’s good practice for treating people correctly. I have other reasons: it’s the way I was raised, I like animals and plants and rocks and fresh air, I take a personal pride in treading lightly on the Earth. But philosophically, I also think it’s quite defensible.

  3. Scott,

    I think that’s where I was going with my comment. I guess, at least for me, I aspire to an ethic of not interfering with another’s telos arbitrarily. In other words, I must have a reason before I, for example, kill a spider (which I hate much more than ants).

  4. Jason's husband, Scott says:

    I love spiders, due in no small part to the fact that they eat ants and mosquitoes and such. But yes, I like your much more succinct way of putting things, except that I would say I try to avoid interfering negatively–that is, in ways that clearly trounce the natural rights of the thing in question. I’ve been known to pick up a turtle off the road, for instance, which is certainly not respecting any natural right of the turtle, but which helps protect it from almost certain death from another less careful or even malicious person. We have to be a lot more careful taking those kinds of action with people who can think for themselves. They may have plans that we’d disrupt, or they may even benefit from being forced to make a plan, rather than having one made for them.

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